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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Tanzania: FAQs

Mark and I have been asked a lot of questions about our trip to Tanzania, some of which have come up so frequently I thought I'd write up the answers here. Many of them included blood and mayhem (I'm starting to wonder about our choice of friends) but most of them were about the practicalities of traveling in a foreign country with only a rented vehicle as a home.

A few things before I start:
  • Keep in mind this is what we found on our trip. I'd hate to be responsible for someone's horrible vacation based on what I've written. 
  • A few of the subjects are not exactly dinner table discussion material, but since they are a very basic part of life I've included them (they also happen to be some of the most frequently asked questions.) If you decide to go on a trip like this you'll thank me.
  • It's good to be cautious in everything you do—be it walking to the neighborhood store in heavy traffic or hiking a high mountain trail with grizzly bears—but don't let fear keep you from stepping out the door. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but with proper preparation and caution, the cat doesn't have to kill you. 

What did you eat?
This was probably the most frustrating and difficult aspect of the trip for us. We were scheduled to stop in at a large grocery store in Arusha before we left on our trip, but the store had closed the week before we arrived so we had to make do with a small mini-mart type store. Subsequently, we didn't have a lot of choice and purchased the very basics like bread, peanut butter, jelly, hot dogs and hamburgers. We were hoping to try more exotic foods while we were there, but the store we visited catered to the ex-pat community, so we ended up with the same type of stuff we have at home. One shining exception though was their juice: they had the best juice blends we've ever tasted, and with fanciful names like "Whisper of Summer" and "Tropical Splendor." Another handy item they had, especially with our limited refrigeration, was milk in those vacuum sealed boxes. We didn't have to worry about keeping a ton of milk cold, just the one open container at a time.

Once we left Arusha the pickings got even slimmer. Signage is not a Tanzanian strong point, on the roads or on the businesses. When we were running out of food we ended up in a very small town and had to search for a store, ending up at a small place that only sold produce and some trinkets. We bought fruit that we could peel, avoiding other items like leafy greens that might make us sick. We ate a lot of bananas, which were readily available. I don't like bananas, but it's amazing what hunger will do for your palate.

Weren't you scared of the animals?
In a word: no.

We are used to camping in bear country and that served as good training for Africa. Keep a clean camp, put everything away every night (food, cooking utensils, clothes, shoes, tables, chairs—everything) and you won't have trouble. Don't attract hungry animals by being sloppy when you cook, and don't attract curious animals (read: baboons) by leaving anything else out. We were told if we left our shoes outside the tent or car, kiss them goodbye. Baboons love to steal anything that's not tied down.

We heard animals every night and it wasn't scary exactly, just exciting. We heard lions roaring and elephants trumpeting, hyenas making their weird hyena sounds and other mysterious noises everywhere we went; after a few days you get used to the sounds. We were assured the animals don't see vehicles and tents as a food source, and that proved to be true. We also never saw anyone trying to feed animals or leaving food out when they weren't actually eating. I'd say that's a wise decision for both the people and the animal's safety.

We also abided by the "no walking around at night" rule. It's not just the predators you have to worry about at night; startling a cape buffalo or any other creature for that matter, could kill you just as dead as a lion could.

The most nervous I got while we were there was driving through a group of baboons. For some reason these guys did not want to get off the road, and as we slowly drove through a big male stared at me through my open car window. I realized then that he could easily jump up to the car and tear my face off if he felt like it, we were that close. I rolled up my window.

How did you know where to camp?
There are designated public campsites in every park which are marked on the maps. Finding them was sometimes a challenge since the maps weren't always accurate, and the signs spotty. If we had any trouble, we just asked a passing safari tour driver. The most experienced drivers know those parks like the back of their hand.

Some of the parks have "special" campsites that are reservable with TANAPA (Tanzanian Parks Assoc.) These spots are located here and there around the parks, and usually marked by signs and on the map. Our tour company (Shaw Safaris) reserved these for us before we arrived, and we carried a permit with us that we showed at the park gate upon entering.

The typical public campground was $10.00 U.S./person/night, and the special campsites were $50.00 U.S./night.

How did you find fuel?
There are fuel stations in the big towns that look a lot like the ones here at home. You're not allowed to pump your own, and the attendants for some reason were almost always female. (I'm not sure if that's significant, but that's what we found.) In the small villages the only option was from an independent dealer. You could tell where these guys were by the pile of 55 gallon drums in front of their hut. You have to be careful about these; there are some unscrupulous ones that add water to stretch their profits. We were advised to make them fill a clear container with the fuel before filling the tank so we could see if there was anything suspicious going on.

The price for fuel there was a little more than in the U.S., about $4.50/gallon. Keep in mind they work in liters (and kilometers), so be prepared to convert your mileage if that's not how you're used to looking at it. Also, they will only accept Tanzanian shillings for fuel; no U.S. currency and no credit cards.

Was it hard to communicate with the people there?
Tanzanians speak Kiswahili or their tribal language at home. In school, they are taught Kiswahili up until middle school, when they are taught English. We found most everyone spoke a little English except in the areas farthest from towns, where I suspect some of the Maasai didn't attend school (and probably didn't speak Kiswahili either.) All the tour drivers, guides and park workers spoke English very well, and it was used as the common language with the tourists no matter which country they came from. We were lucky in that respect, although to be polite we did try to at least greet and thank people with the Kiswahili 'jambo' and 'asante'. We were supplied a list of common phrases that came in handy in a few of the smaller villages, although if there was a problem translating it only took a minute for the storekeeper to send (usually as close as across the street) for an English translator.

Were there bathrooms there?
In the organized campgrounds there were bathrooms; anything from a western-style flush toilet to a long drop with foot pads on either side of the hole and a bucket of water with a dipper for rinsing.

If you aren't allowed to get out of the vehicle (or tent at night), what did you do, when, you know...
Every night we took an empty wide-mouth plastic bottle up to our tent just in case nature called. This set up worked as-is for Mark, but I required a little help to avoid a mess. This is where the Lady-J came in. It's a small plastic device that directs the flow wherever you want it to go, as opposed to all over the tent and blankets. I practiced with it at home before we left and it worked great. The only trouble I had was keeping hold of the device and the bottle while trying to make sure I didn't drip on anything during the wiping stage. And speaking of wiping, I also brought a ziplock bag up every night to hold the device and any used toilet paper. I didn't need it every night, but when I did it came in very handy. I also had it in the car with us during the day in case I needed it during the long drives (I never needed it then as it turned out.)

The only worry we had was if one of us got sick in the middle of the night. Tummy troubles can't be solved with a plastic bottle. We were fairly lucky in this regard; I had some trouble on two occasions, the first being in the Serengeti but during the day. The second was in the middle of the night at Lake Natron. Luckily, we were only a hundred feet from the bathroom there, and there weren't many animals in that area. I risked the walk to the latrine and didn't have any problems. Actually, that night, I would have welcomed being eaten, if only to put me out of my misery.

How did you know where to look for animals?
This question was posed to us by people that had been part of the organized safaris in the past. Their guides had found animals and advised them where to look, using their radios to communicate the action to one another. We thought we'd have more trouble than we did, but truthfully, the animals are everywhere. We read our guide book before we left and marked the pages of the significant animals and more importantly, their habitats. Driving slowly and keeping our eyes peeled we found the most extraordinary things. It didn't hurt to keep our eyes on the professionals either; that's how we found the leopard in Serengeti. In other cases it was just being in the right place at the right time.

I think it would be hard to go to Africa and NOT see animals.

What was the weather like there?
We went in the months of July and August, the middle of Tanzania's winter. It was generally pleasant during the day, 70s-80s (Fahrenheit), and in the 50s at night. The only exception was at the Ngorongoro Crater which is at 7000 feet; it was in the 60s and cloudy during the day with some rain, and in the 40s at night.

What did you wear?
We took Shaw's advice and only packed about five days worth of clothes. The vehicle wasn't that big, and frankly, we got so dirty so quickly it wasn't worth trying to stay spotless all the time. We brought five t-shirts, two pairs of shorts, a pair of long pants, five sets of underwear and socks, one pair of shoes and one pair of flip flops, a long sleeve overshirt for both the sun and cool nights, a fleece pullover for the colder nights, and long underwear for the really cold nights on Ngorongoro. We also wore a nicer set of clothes on the plane on the way over, and then again on the way back to spare our seat mates the agony of a well-worn camping outfit. We had clothes detergent and a small clothesline with us and washed underwear, socks and the occasional t-shirt every few days, so it's not as disgusting as you might think. The dry weather there meant our clothes were dry and ready to wear by the next morning.

Were the bugs bad?
With the exception of the tsetse flies in Serengeti, we had almost no problems with bugs. Whether it was the time of year or the parks we visited, we got really lucky. After camping in Lake Manyara our car was covered with spider webs, but we didn't personally have any problems with the spiders.

Would you go back?
In a hearbeat.

If you asked us on the first day out, we might have thought differently. I'll admit to wondering on those first couple days "What the hell were we thinking when we signed up for this?" But once we got the hang of it, once we started to understand how it worked and let go of our pre-conceived notions it got better, and by the end we didn't want to leave. Tanzania might be a third world country but it's people, animals and scenery are first rate.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Canyonlands National Park: The White Rim Road

That lighter red stripe at the edge of the cliff on the left side of the photo? That's the road. If you think it looks like you could easily drive right off the edge, you'd be right.
The sweat on my palms mixed with the red dust on the armrest, creating an unappealing paste in the crevices of my hands. I wiped them on my shorts as we peered over the hood of the truck at the latest section of switchbacks. The (barely) one lane road began with a pavement of loose rocks, led down under an enormous overhanging boulder, then disappeared around a corner, all at a downward 45 degree angle. Mark had a grim look on his face as he put the truck into 4x4 low and shifted to the lowest gear the Ford has.

I guess we're gonna do this.

We passed a small cardboard box propped on the cliff edge side of the road, which we assumed someone lost off their rig as they bumped their way down. It was fortunate for us we were too busy concentrating on the terrain to read what was written on it:

"Solo vehicle accident on May 2, 2016. Survivor airlifted to hospital."

Three weeks ago.

Roads don't usually intimidate me, but this was no ordinary road. At this point in the trip the White Rim had already pushed the limits of our truck: steep switchbacks with turns so tight we had to shimmy around them; rolling sheets of slick rock with crevices that had us analyzing our angle of approach and departure; narrow cliffside sections with blind corners that would make a diehard atheist pray to just about anyone if it would guarantee no oncoming traffic. Now the road was throwing us a new twist: overhangs that threatened to rip the camper off the truck.

Whose idea was this anyway?

Starting the trip; the base of the Shafer Switchbacks, Islands in the Sky district.

I wouldn't be writing this if we hadn't made it down those switchbacks in one piece and yeah, I'm probably being dramatic. But when we got to the bottom and looked up to see that wrecked truck from three weeks ago still wedged between two giant boulders, yellow flags left by the accident investigation marking the trail of debris, it kind of sobered us up.

From the bottom of the switchbacks we looked up...

...and saw this.
For years we'd been wanting to drive the White Rim Road. We had visited Canyonlands before and done the typical drive to the overlooks, peering over the edge at the vast network of canyons created by the Green and Colorado rivers. And way down there near the bottom, a dusty road wound around the edge of the river cut cliffs. "Someday," Mark would tell me, "someday I wanna do that."

Someday had finally arrived.

It was a challenging road, one that used all those lessons they taught us over the many years of attending Overland Expo, along with the ones we had learned the hard way in places like Death Valley and the backcountry of the Sierras. I think that's the reason Mark wanted to do it, for the technical challenge. What I enjoyed most was the view.

Enjoying the view, Colorado River below. Canyonlands National Park

100 miles of winding multi-hued canyons stretch out to the horizon. Each thick layer of rock the river had exposed had a distinct color, and (as you've probably guessed) the layer the majority of the White Rim road travels has a white tinge (check out this cool pamphlet about the geology of Canyonlands for a more complete understanding of the layers). The scenery was always spectacular and would change from a soft hazy red in the morning, to harsh shadows and bright edges at noon, to glowing red at sunset.

Ryan and LeeWhay's Lexus/Adventure Trailer combo skirts the edge of the canyon.

Our camp spot at Gooseberry, White Rim Road
Nothing can really compare to camping out in the middle of all that. Our little group had reservations at Gooseberry Campsite, scored by our friends six months before. We were almost the only ones there (there were a couple hearty mountain bikers camped across the road). Once the sun went down, it was dark and quiet but for the ever present wind that seems to follow us when we're in Utah. Like most of the road, campgrounds in the canyon are perched on the edge of cliffs; it isn't a good idea to wander off in the dark without a headlamp. Stargazing is pretty good, although there's a pretty healthy glow coming from nearby Moab, so it's not quite as spectacular as some of the other remote locations in Utah.

Lined up at the cliffs edge, Washer Woman (the rock formation above) in the distance.

Although the White Rim is not for the faint of heart or those who are fond of their shiny paint and low profile tires, it is possible to traverse it in a stock SUV (not that I'd recommend it). About halfway through we met a couple of guys who were doing just that in a Nissan Pathfinder. They said they scraped a little here and there, bottomed out pretty hard once or twice and it took them an hour to get up one of the steepest hills on the route. As we drove away, we were sure they'd be needing a tow out of there but a couple days later we saw them, alive and victorious.

It should be noted, however, it was a rental.

Switchbacks are a way of life on the White Rim

If you choose to go, make sure you have more than one night reserved in the campgrounds. The road is tough, and the smartest and safest way to enjoy it is slowly. Our campsite was only 30 miles in, which made for a long drive out the next day. It was the general consensus that one more night at the 60 mile mark would have made the perfect trip. From start to finish it's 100 miles long, and unless you drive over a cliff, none of that will be at freeway speeds. We averaged about ten miles per hour, not counting the side trips and photo stops. There were sections that could only be traveled at a crawl; it's just not safe to go very fast up those switchbacks, not knowing what might be coming around the corner. Our group brought two way radios so the lead vehicle could always radio back if they encountered someone on the road. It was helpful to have that extra warning, as there aren't many places to pull over in some sections. The road is also popular with mountain bikers, so keep an eye out for them. We saw more bikes than vehicles during our trip; we tried to be considerate and wait for them to pass before kicking up more dust.

The Shafer Switchbacks get you down into the canyon from the Islands in the Sky Visitor's Center. As scary as this might look, it was the easiest part of the road. Most of this section is wide enough for two cars to pass, or at the very least, find a spot to pull over.
There is a section that crosses the Green River when water is high: all the more reason to check in at the Visitor's Center before you go down. A few days before we went, the water was too high to cross, which would have meant backtracking 70 miles out of there, a daunting prospect for us with our 10 cylinder gas eating truck. 
Our friends had obtained a permit for our group to travel through, as well as the campground reservations. Everyone who drives the road, even just for the day, has to have a $25.00 permit. You can get them online at: or at the Visitor's Center. Please note, these fees are in addition to the park entrance fee.

Coming up the Hogback switchbacks
(Another note about fees: If you are planning to visit other National Parks in the coming year, it really pays to buy a National Parks Annual Pass. For $80 you can gain entry to any National Park in the U.S. for a year from the month you purchased your pass. Considering most of the parks now are at least $20.00 to enter, it doesn't take many visits to make it pay for itself. We figure, even if we don't use it, the money still goes for the upkeep and maintenance of all these beautiful places. You can't lose!)

The view from the top of the plateau, La Sal Mountains in the distance

We could have made this trip on our own, but it was definitely safer to travel with a group. A misplaced rock or a moment of inattention could cost you anything from a slashed tire to a smashed oil pan to your life. Having those extra eyes looking for hazards and warnings about the conditions ahead made the trip less stressful. And when you add in the extra cooler space for beer and snacks, the interesting camp chair conversation at the end of a long day of driving, and the general shared experience of the road, it was a no-brainer. We can only hope our buddies enjoyed this trip as much as we did.

The White Rim crew: Rasa, Craig, Leewhay, Ryan, Mark and Ron.
Explorers and all-round fine human beings make a great trip even better.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Carrizo Plain National Monument: Raw California

As a fourth generation California native, I've been known to get cranky about the ever increasing population I'm forced to share my state with. Currently there are 38.8 million people here, crowding the roads, booking campsites in Yosemite and lining up ahead of me at my favorite taqueria. Don't get me wrong; for the most part, I'm proud of my state and can see why everyone wants to live here. But every time an empty field gets plowed up to build yet another set of ugly apartment buildings it really puts my teeth on edge.

If you've read any of my previous blog entries it should come as no surprise I love big empty spaces. If I'm to be expected to work indoors full time I need to be allowed to stand outside at least four weeks a year staring at open land, breathing real air uninterrupted by phones, computers, traffic and crowds. Over the years it seems we have to go farther afield in order to do this. It's frustrating because the longer it takes to get there equates to less time staring and breathing.

When I read about Carrizo Plain National Monument I immediately wanted to go see it. Here was a huge chunk of California that had been lightly used and never developed, right smack in the middle of the state. In 2001 it was designated a National Monument, saving it from what undoubtedly would have been it's future: housing tracts, mini-malls and more farmland that is unsupportable by the paltry water supply we've got in that part of the state.

We set off a few weeks ago to see it for ourselves, in the midst of an El Niño year. (For those few who actually don't live in California, El Niño is bigger news than earthquakes around here. El Niño means we can flush our toilets more often and perhaps, maybe, on Thursdays, water our lawns in the summer.) It was raining when we left, and it rained off and on all the way down Highway 101 to Santa Margarita where Highway 58 takes you up and over the coastal range to Carrizo Plain.

Here's an image of the Topaz Solar Farm from space, courtesy of NASA. You can read about it here.
It was a nice drive through the mountains, the twisting highway taking us through ranches that seemed to get more sprawling as we climbed. The country here is usually pretty dry; I can imagine it would take a lot of land to feed cattle with the sparse vegetation (although it was as green as Ireland when we drove through). The highway eventually drops down into a large flat valley. Something shiny and gray lay out before us, and as we got closer we realized it was a huge solar farm, the panels dripping in the dull rain. Excellent use of a flat (usually) dry and (usually) sunny space.

The grand road leading into Carrizo Plain National Monument.

The entrance to Carrizo Plain is pretty mellow. A sign at the border of the park announces you've arrived, but the road makes you wonder if it's true. A skinny asphalt strip, crumbling at the edges and overgrown with weeds, leads you straight into the valley. We cruised in and stopped at the Soda Lake Overlook first, a quick drive up a small hill. The view from the top of a short trail looks down on Soda Lake, a giant alkali lake that dries every year into a white dusty haze. In the past it's been farmed for salt for cattle and sodium sulfate for industrial use, but now it's left to shimmer in the sun.

The view back at the parking lot from the top of the trail.
Soda Lake on a dreary day. There was actually a little water in it that day.
The view down valley; a whole lotta empty.
We stopped in at the Goodwin Education Center to get a better idea of what to expect. FYI the center has limited hours. It's open December through May Thursday through Sundays from 9:00am to 4:00pm. No worries though, they have maps and brochures available year round outside the center in case you drop in during the off hours.

We always like to check in with staff when we get to a new area. If you're lucky, they will share their favorite parts of the park, and if you're really lucky they'll let you in on some aspect that's not part of the brochures. We once had a ranger tell us about ancient camel tracks in a dry wash, an incredible sight as well as an honor to be trusted with that information.

We approached the desk anticipating a little enthusiasm, hoping for some insider information. What followed was less than...well, here's a snippet of the conversation:

Mark: "Hi! How are you?"
"We've never been here before. What's there to see?"
"Not much. Flowers?"
"Wow, it would be great to see a condor!" gesturing to the taxidermied condor hanging from the ceiling.
"Yeah, it would. We haven't seen one of those for 30 years."
"How's the camping here? We read there are two campgrounds, but we'd like to find our own spot." (the park is BLM land, so dispersed camping is allowed)
"Yeah, well all the roads are closed."

Wow, way to sell the park.

Finally another park employee walked out of the office and told us the drought had really taken a toll on the wildlife in the last four years, and with the recent rains the roads were pretty muddy. To be clear, they weren't officially closed, they just asked that people not drive on them if they were too wet. (Only the entry road past the lake up to the first campground is paved, the rest of the roads in the park are graded dirt and gravel.)

We left the center feeling a little less excited about this trip, but hey, we didn't have to go to work the next day, so let's do this! If nothing else, we just might get to practice our mud recovery techniques.

The view of the valley from the top of Caliente Mountain Ridge, Selby Campground in the center below us.

We checked out Selby Campground first. It's five miles up a winding road that leads up a canyon to the camp. The sites are pretty bare, just a table and fire ring on gravel, but the park has built little shelters over all the picnic tables, presumably to keep the sun off your mac & cheese. The wind was blowing pretty hard that day, and people were packing up as we drove through. We thought we'd check the other campground out before making a decision.

Old ranch left standing, complete with windmill and farm truck, near Selby Camp
Driving back out toward the main road we noticed a few attractions; an old ranch had been left standing complete with barn, windmill and some farm equipment. There were also a couple hiking trails that led to Painted Rock, the major attraction of Carrizo Plain. Of course, we had already been warned by Ranger Negative Nancy it was closed due to bird nesting season. (It's closed March 1st through July 15 if you'd like to plan your trip around it.)

The view improved when the sun broke through.
The long road to Selby Campground, lined with flowers.

As we made our way down the foothills toward the main road the sun peeked out between the clouds, highlighting what we missed on the way up; a carpet of yellow flowers made a brilliant pattern across the valley, intermixed with patches of blue smudges. Daisy-like coreopsis carpeted most of the valley, with large patches of lupine popping up to give it blue highlights. The distant hillsides reflected a more orange color. Later we realized it was huge swathes of California poppies.

This place was getting more interesting.

The sign at the turnoff to KCL Campground.

We drove further south to the KCL Campground, named for the Kern Cattle and Land company, the entity that used to own a ranch here. The entrance is marked by an old tanker with the logo cut out of a metal sheet hanging over it–you can't miss it. This campground had a bit more character. Set among huge eucalyptus trees, the sites were well spaced and surrounded by iron fencing. A horse pen was built into one side for those who needed it, and an old barn/workshop stood at the end, the last remnants of the ranch. We found a nice spot away from the others and set up camp under an enormous tree.

There's a saying that's repeated in all the brochures and maps of the Carrizo Plain: "The closer you look, the more you see." It would be easy to drive in for the day, take a look around and say "Geez, why'd they bother to set this place aside?" It's true; it's a big empty valley that gets really hot and dry in the summer, and really muddy in the winter. There aren't many trees, and of those they aren't rare or exotic. There are no fancy lodges or swimming pools or ice cream stands. The closest good size town is Taft, an oil town with the motto "Energized for the Future." (If the future looks like one of the Mad Max movies, they're already there.)

Once out of the car though, things change. The first thing you notice is the ringing in your ears. Other than birds and an occasional airplane, there's no noise. Not many people venture into the park, and the closest highway is at least 30 miles away over a set of mountains. Once you get accustomed to the quiet, you can actually hear the grass rustle in the breeze. It's glorious.

Once your eyes adjust, you notice there are unusual plants mixed in with the grass, and a lot of them have tiny flowers. Stand back a bit or climb up a hill, and those individual plants take on the look of colored mats, yellows and blues merging into each other. While you're up on that hill look to the east and see a rippled ridge running the length of the valley. That's the San Andreas Fault, making it's slow progression to the north, moving at the rate your fingernails grow.

It's raw California.

We took a drive on our second day there, stopping in to check out the Traver Ranch. Two houses and assorted outbuildings are all that's left of a long time "dry" ranching operation. There's a bunch of old farming equipment you can poke around, with a few signs indicating how and when they were used. We didn't see anyone there the hour of so we spent taking photos and exploring. The wind moving through the empty buildings made it a little eery; you could almost imagine living out here back in the day.
Broken second story windows on the "new" house at Traver Ranch.

Interior of the "old" house at Traver Ranch.

Hay trailer

The view through the Silky Rake, Traver Ranch
Why do people feel the need to shoot at windows?
Old tractor at Traver Ranch

Cletrac Tractor, Traver Ranch

Mark tries his hand at farming
The view of the Temblor Range from Traver Ranch. The San Andreas Fault runs right along the rippled tan ridge. I wonder how they came up with that name?

We made a full loop that day, despite the dreary Ranger's warning. It hadn't rained all night or day, so we took Elkhorn Road back up the valley, a dirt road that traverses the Temblor Range on the eastern side of the park. It's a relatively nice dirt road, although we had a few dicey mud patches to cross. I wouldn't recommend it in a passenger car, especially if it's recently rained. We had to put it in 4 wheel low a few times to safely cross a few low spots. Along the way there were multiple views of wildflowers, and one sighting of a pronghorn antelope, too quick for a picture. Those guys can move. It was a beautiful animal and we were excited to spot one for the first time.

The beautiful Elkhorn Road.
Toward the end of the road (or the beginning, if you start at the north end of Elkhorn Road) there is a small parking area for Wallace Creek. Here there is a signed trail that follows the San Andreas Fault. The creek dramatically visualizes the power and movement of a strike/slip fault; the creek has been slowly moving, lengthening towards the north at 3 centimeters per year. It's capable of moving a lot faster; it's estimated that during a huge earthquake in 1857 it actually moved as much as 29 feet. There was an empty box at the beginning of the trailhead that we assumed had handouts explaining the numbered stops on the trail. Alas, we were left to guess what they stood for.
The "s" turn in Wallace Creek, right on top of the San Andreas Fault.
This is what happens when you drive the roads after it rains. Cutting across the valley on Semmler Road, we hit a muddy section that tested Mark's driving skills. Weeks later we are still scrubbing mud out of the truck's nooks and crannies. My hope is some of the wildflower seeds made their way home with us and perhaps our driveway will have a spectacular bloom next spring.

The next day we explored the western side of the park, and drove back up the road to Selby campground and surrounding area. There was an interesting rock formation there we wanted to check out, along with that ranch and a curious road we saw the day before.

Painted Rock was closed of course, but there was another set of rocks nearby, and they didn't seem to have any regulations keeping us from poking around them. We parked nearby and walked out across the grass and flowers with the dogs.

The rock ridge near Selby Campground

The rocks seemed to rise up out of the ground like a rounded spine. There were strange round depressions that had filled with water from the rains, and colorful lichen covered the north side of the ridge. There were natural holes in the sides of the rocks, and birds had made nests in the crevices. We were careful not to get too close and disturb any of the occupants. We also found a large bee's nest in one of the crevices; thankfully we could hear them before we got too close.

Succulents growing on the rocks.

Strange "pot holes" in the rocks had filled with rain water.
Alice Algae and Freddy Fungus took a Lichen to each other.
Clever birds had built nests into the natural hollows in the rocks.
Huge boulders lay in the field like giant marbles.

We checked out the old abandoned ranch across the way, then headed up the Caliente Ridge Trail Road. It's a nail-biting one lane dirt road that winds up the side of the mountains, popping up on top of the ridge with spectacular 360 degree views. It was a sunny day, and you could almost hear the wildflowers blooming all around us.

The view to the west from Caliente Ridge Trail Road. Notice the yellow highlights on the sides of all the hills.

Carrizo Plain is almost entirely BLM land, so it would be permissible to make a camp along this road as long as it's an established area. We saw a few prime spots with great views of the valley, but since we had a nice camp spot with almost no neighbors, it seemed silly to move it. Besides, there was still rain in the forecast and the road had still been a little dicey in spots after drying out for a couple days.

A lizard suns itself on an old outbuilding, KCL Campground
A Great Horned Owl stares us down from the top of a giant eucalyptus tree, KCL Camp.
She serenaded us every night at dusk.
Back at camp, we took a walk up in the hills behind the grounds. It's the strangest feeling to walk up a hill just to find endless hills rolling out beyond, without a building in sight. The park allows visitors to walk anywhere; there are a few established trails, but if you see something you want to check out, get out of your car and head toward it. We found some old farm equipment half buried in the grass and an old water tank teetering on a wooden base. The dogs indicated that something was living underneath it; we decided to let whatever it was alone. We've had our fair share of wildlife encounters and they rarely end well when the dogs are involved.

The view from the hill, back down towards KCL camp.

One of the many types of wildflowers growing on the plain.
The first thing he did when he jumped out of the truck was catch a lizard and eat it.
It must have tasted good, he was on the lookout for lizards for the rest of the trip.
Notice the dire warning about destroying the sign. Then notice the bullet holes.

It's good to read up on this place before you go; since it's such a young park, I think they are still getting the hang of how to best serve the public. Be sure to pack your curiosity and adventurous spirit. As the park saying goes, "the more you look, the more you'll see" But be prepared; you just might have to guess what it is you're looking at.

If you go, a few things to note: Cell phone service was spotty to nonexistent in the park, so don't rely on it for emergencies. The nearest gas station is in Maricopa, to the south of the park on Hwy 166. There is no water or garbage service, so pack it in and pack it out, however, camping is free. There are pit toilets at the campgrounds, Soda Lake Overlook, and Traver Ranch; everywhere else you'll have to pull up a bush. The visitor's center has limited hours, and the wildflowers are only available in spring after a wet winter. You can check in with the park ahead of time for an update on the road and other conditions by calling the Goodwin Education Center at 805-475-2131.

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